Better Buffers

How building appropriate buffer into our everyday lives can make us more successful

Imagine walking into an American restaurant with your best friend and just a $20 bill. You buy a $20 meal, have a great time with your friend and an hour later stand up to leave. You slap your $20 bill on the table and head toward the door. As you near the door, a mob of angry restaurant employees barricades the door and holds you up at platter-point! What have you done?

It turns out, it was your first time in an American restaurant, and you had no idea that tipping was customary. Menu price was not the actual cost. You beg your waiter's forgiveness, ask your friend to bail you out this one time, and escape the barricade, head hung low.

The problem is, in life, menu price is rarely the actual cost. But we stroll along believing it is. This applies to countless—equally in non-financial—areas of our lives, where if we planned ahead, we could avoid "barricaded-restaurant-exit" situations.

What we need are better buffers. A buffer is simply slack, the amount of room you have to mess up before reaching an undesired consequence. A better buffer comes from designing the appropriate amount of efficiency into our plans, based on the situation.

Why it matters

We need better buffers because too much efficiency is dangerous. 

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about how creating a buffer for error is the appropriate response to crises, not just maximizing efficiency around the diagnosed problem. Here is a quote from Kahneman in an interview on the Masters in Business podcast a few years ago:

Hindsight is a big deal. It allows us to keep a coherent view of the world, [but] it blinds us to surprises, it prevents us from learning the right thing, it allows us to learn the wrong thing — that is whenever we’re surprised by something, even if we do admit that we’ve made a mistake or [you say] ‘I’ll never make that mistake again.’ In fact, what you should learn when you make a mistake because you did not anticipate something is that the world is difficult to anticipate. That’s the correct lesson to learn from surprises — that the world is surprising.

The problem is, the range of possible outcomes is almost always wider than we can account for.

If we decide to not add buffers to our lives, what are we implicitly saying about the situation? Could it be a) I know everything is going to go perfectly, so I don't need to allow for even an inch of flexibility because I won't need it, or b) I have so little clue of how this realm of activity actually works, that I'm effectively blindly throwing a dart at a distant target. (Ok, yes you could add a third category of predictable events: the physical world, well understood scientific phenomena, etc. There is very little uncertainty there. For this discussion, I want to think about the big, meaningful, complex issues out there: relationships, dynamic work environments, cultures, engineering problems, and others.) It would be an act of hubris to assume perfect outcomes. Some things, you just can’t know.

Planning for the Unplannable

Think of sports. When I was in middle school, I played a lot of tennis, and my older brother would practice with me sometimes. When you warm up in tennis you usually start from the baseline at the far end of the court, and after a few minutes one of the players will come to the net to practice volleys while the other remains at the baseline. I was feeling aggressive that day, and wanted to "win the warmup," so I decided to get as close to the net as I could and cut off my brother's shots. The only problem is that by getting closer to the other player, you lose time to react to the ball coming at you.

My clever tactic backfired as he crushed a ball right at me. I couldn't react in time, and the ball hit me squarely in the nose. There was blood everywhere. (For those less familiar with tennis, amateurs aren't good enough at aiming to pick off peoples' noses. No suspected malice here.) You can imagine the look on my mom's face when we walked up to her and said we were ready to go! That day, I learned a lot about the risks of standing too close to the net (and a tiny bit about pain).

What could I have done differently? I could have stepped back from the net. Because I had no idea how hard he was going to hit it, I could have allowed myself the room and time I needed to properly react to his shot. I could have given myself a better buffer to help plan for the unplannable. Too much efficiency became dangerous.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” - Benjamin Franklin

The size of the buffer depends on the situation. Different situations call for different amounts of buffer. Appropriate efficiency is key. Whether you’re in a situation with no time to react or you have no emergency savings fund and you're one car breakdown away from a personal finance crisis, not designing appropriate efficiency into different areas of your life can bite you when you least expect it. 

I know, sometimes buffers are a luxury we can't afford. We're forced into a corner and it's do or die. That's reality. But if at all possible, try and consider clever ways to build buffers into your plans. Remember, menu price is rarely the actual cost.

Appropriate amounts of buffer enable us to perform our best and direct all our focus toward our goals and highest point of contribution. Our brains aren’t distracted by the looming prospect of failure and we can enjoy the present. So, how can we be intentional in building buffer into the important areas of our lives so that we can thrive in them? Through practice. 

Here’s a quick way to do this. Right at the beginning of a plan, ask yourself these three things:

  1. First, what’s the obvious, first-glance menu price of this action? 

  2. Second, what costs beyond that could I be missing? 

  3. And third, who knows more about this topic than I do and can advise me? 

This 30-second, top-of-mind habit can help you build better buffers and save you from trouble down the road. If we add even a small amount of buffer in areas where we need it, we would stay in the game long enough to learn to become great.

We want to keep playing the game. To have endurance over perfect efficiency.

And if we trained ourselves to use better buffers?

Maybe then we could leave a restaurant in peace, no barricades needed.

What buffers do you use in your life? Let me know in the comments below! If you enjoyed this, please like and share!

Thanks to Compound Writing, Chris Harvey, Yishi Zuo, Ergest Xheblati and Steven Ovadia for their help with drafts of this.